The Magazine

Selling Out Moderate Islam

Washington's misbegotten campaign to be loved in the Middle East.

Feb 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THE DANISH CARTOONS of the Prophet Muhammad, like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against the British author Salman Rushdie and those who helped publish his Satanic Verses, have revealed more disturbing things about the West than they have about Muslims in Europe and the Middle East. With Rushdie, Westerners deplored the Iranian cleric's death warrant but often temporized their condemnation by suggesting that the then hard-left author had been, as the former, redoubtable New York Times correspondent Kennett Love once put it, "mean to Islam." (Few prominent Muslim clerics and intellectuals could bring themselves to make an unqualified condemnation of Khomeini's actions; an enormous number of Muslim clerics, intellectuals, and scholars chose to remain quiet, and in their silence there was surely often both fear and assent.)

With Denmark, the initial response of the Bush administration aligned America more with those Muslims who felt the cartoons impugned their sacred messenger than with the European press that had printed the caricatures. Sean McCormack, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs, declared, "Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief." Former President Clinton echoed this sentiment while visiting the Persian Gulf emirate Qatar: "None of us are totally free of stereotypes about people of different races, different ethnic groups, and different religions. . . . There was this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark, . . . these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam." Senator John Kerry, too, took umbrage: "These and other inflammatory images deserve our scorn, just as the violence against embassies and military installations are an unacceptable and intolerable form of protest."

Former Democratic congressman Tim Roemer, a member of the 9/11 Commission, which was deeply worried about the woeful image of the United States in the Muslim world, articulated what many Democrats and Republicans were surely thinking but not saying: "We have done precious little to effectively communicate to the hearts and minds and win that long-term war. . . . This seems to be an opportunity to condemn the cartoons and communicate directly with the Muslim people on a host of issues." And across the Atlantic, French President Jacques Chirac, who still hasn't recovered from Muslim French youth rioting last fall, gave the most "sensitive" European response: "Anything liable to offend the beliefs of others, particularly religious beliefs, must be avoided."

Beyond the question of whether any of these men really means what he says--it's not hard to imagine Clinton, Kerry, the Anglophone Chirac, or McCormack enjoying Monty Python's relentlessly mocking, anti-Christian romps Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life--they all echo a common view about Muslim sentiments and Western policy since 9/11, and especially since the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. To wit: We need to encourage interfaith dialogue, we need to show that the West, particularly America, is not opposed to Islam, and we need to solve, or at least play down, points of friction between the West and the Islamic world. (Until the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, this view inevitably underscored progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as indispensable to better relations.)

ANTI-AMERICANISM is the great bugaboo for these folks, and the more wonkish among them often have at their finger-tips polling data showing what a sorry state the United States is in among Muslims worldwide. A good, highly polemical example of this mindset is The Next Attack by Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, former counterterrorist officials in the Clinton administration. In their book, Benjamin and Simon zealously use polls, and the opinions of unnamed American and European intelligence officials, to argue that the Bush administration is losing the war against Islamic holy warriors.

However well intended, this empathetic view is seriously wrong-headed. It camouflages what is really at stake in Denmark and the rest of Europe with these cartoons. This type of hearts-and-minds strategy will inevitably backfire, compromising the very Muslims that this administration and liberal Democrats would most like to see advance in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.